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Zones of special operations bound to fail

Canute Thompson, PhD

Sunday, September 03, 2017

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After a period of about a month following the hastily passed zones of special operations Bill, the Government now seems set to implement the Act. In preparation for implementation, the prime minister met with senior cops to remind them of the importance of observing human rights. In the period of debate on the Bill the prime minister had given the assurance that the police would not be kicking down people's doors.

But the most telling promise concerning this Act, to date, is the announcement attributed to the prime minister that the measure of success of the Act will be that no murders are committed within the declared zones. By that measure, the prime minister has declared the Act a sure failure.

As at the time of writing at least 1,014 murders had been committed in Jamaica since the start of the year — an average of about four murders per day. There have been several instances of double, triple, and quadruple murders. This mayhem is spreading to more and more parishes, thus reflecting an endemic and embedded culture of taking others' lives due to lack of regard for life. With that stark reality, how could it be conceivable that any law or any police/military operation could stop murders?

The fact is that the police cannot be everywhere at the same time. Thus there is nothing to stop a barbaric-minded youth from walking into a shop in a declared zone of special operations and spraying bullets then jumping into a waiting car and fleeing. There is nothing to stop a heartless man or woman from stabbing his or her spouse to death in the dead of night over some trivial matter. No amount of policing can prevent altercation between patrons at a dance and one killing the other.

For the Government to suggest that the zones of special operations will eliminate murders amounts not only an over-simplification of a problem, but a reflection of a continued misunderstanding of the problem.

I submit, therefore, that to use the attainment of a state of murders not being committed in a zone of special operation as the measure of the success of the measure means sure failure — murders will be committed.

But I hope I am proven wrong.

Are the police being soft on criminals?

That the chosen metric is evidence of a misreading of the root causes of the problem is reinforced by the focus of the strategy. The zones of special operations measure, as I have argued in this space before, is principally an act of tough policing. In that regard, the incipient reasoning is that the police have been too soft (or not tough enough) and that is why there is an escalation in murders.

Police killings have fallen drastically over the last four years, as shown in the table below. I wonder if the Government is seeing this trend as evidence of the police not being tough enough. I hope not. (See table)

If it is ever the, unlikely, case that the Government believes the police are not being tough enough and the zones of special operations will correct that, then we have another major incorrect analysis. It seems likely that the precipitous drop in police killings has nothing to do with police acting more felicitously towards citizens. Rather, it is more likely the case that the police are fearful and are firmly committed to protecting their income.

There has been discussion on whether Independent Commission of Investigation (INDECOM) has had, or ought to be perceived as having, a chilling effect on police. The head of INDECOM argues that if police are doing their jobs properly then they need not fear INDECOM. This argument is a bit disingenuous as a law-abiding police officer carrying out his or her job can run into a situation in which a citizen is killed either by accident — or deliberately based on a reasoned apprehension of fear. This officer, when called by INDECOM for an interview, must lawyer-up at his or her expense.

Police demotivated

There is anecdotal evidence suggesting that the police have 'pulled back', and this is attributable not only to the factors outlined above; feelings of being disrespected and demotivation. Police officers have reportedly shared that when reports of some types of crime are received they delay hoping that the assailant will leave before their arrival. Then there is the palpable fact that many police operate in fear for their own safely. Many are struggling financially. Given the cruel conditions under which police work, the fact that Government has responded to only one item in their 40-plus points claim shows a level of insensitivity.

The seeming insensitivity shown in these the early days of the 2017-19 wage negotiations was preceded by the hard fact that the Government has passed the zones of special operations Bill making it a criminal act, punishable by imprisonment, for a police not to give six-months' notice on resignation from the constabulary.

The prospects for the zones of special operations to succeed are not only eliminated by the fact that there are opportunities to commit murder, in this our murder-prone society, that the police can neither anticipate nor prevent, but also by the general conditions of policing which are now made worse by elements of the zones of special operations regulations and the seeming insensitivity of Government towards police officers.

Revising the ZOSO tools

I have argued that the root cause of crime is to be found in our homes and a school system that is failing many of our students. These twin factors produce legions of unattached youth who are easy pickings for one of the over 266 gangs operating across the country. Decapitating gang leaders without strengthening homes and schools will not solve the problem.

In this world view, then, the cure for the high levels of violence and murders is to be found in creating meaningful and sustainable alternatives for unattached youth, in the short to medium term, and correcting the ills in our education system in the medium to long term. Unless we tackle the problem of violence from this perspective we will be having this discussion in 2050.

Treating crime as a problem arising from the fact that youth are uneducated and unemployed would mean that the measures of success of the zones of special operations initiative would include:

• the number of youth who have gained employable skills

• the number of youth employed

• the number of youth who have started small businesses

• the percentage of the unattached youth population that have earned certification

• the number of schools repaired and equipped with certain critical resources

• the number of men trained in non-violent conflict resolution techniques

• the number of cadet companies reactivated

Bringing everyone to the table

While at the JTA conference in August, Minister of Education Senator Ruel Reid apologised for comments he made about principals being extortionate. The minister acted wisely by apologising. While on the campaign trail in 2015, then Opposition leader, now prime minister, Andrew Holness told the country that if people wanted to sleep with their doors open or go to sleep and wake up alive they cannot vote for the People's National Party.

I am among those who urged the prime minister to withdraw the comments; not only because the comments are untrue, but because they stand in the way of getting all hands on deck in the fight against crime. This is not to suggest that a withdrawal of the comments will be the elixir that stops the bloodshed; rather it is suggesting that the withdrawal sets the tone for cooperation. Taken as stated, the Government should have the solution to the problem of murder facing the country. But no one person or one party or one government has the solution, thus the leader-like thing for the prime minister to do is to simply acknowledge that he spoke in a moment of heat on the trail, that his comments were not crafted the way he intended, and that he is withdrawing those comments and pledging work with everyone to solve the problems facing us.

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.

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